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Heres a story from my wifes first semester of full-time teaching which illustrates just how far we have yet to go to correct American attitudes about math.

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It was a calculus class designed for business majors, and she was discussing a rationale for knowing how to do basic algebra.  Yes, you read that correctly.  It seems math teachers end up teaching material from prior years a fair bit.  In my wifes example, the students were asked to imagine they were purchasing a large amount of soda at the grocery store for a party.  If soda came in 2-liters, 12-packs of cans, and 8-packs of 20 oz bottles, they would literally use the simple equation she was demonstrating to determine the cheapest cost-per-ounce so they could get the best soda value.

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Heres where our hero stepped in.  A student raised an objection.  I dont really care, though, he said.  If I pay a little more for soda, thats just a tax Im willing to pay so I dont have to know how to do this.  (Keep in mind this wasnt even the principal material of the course.  This is a technique most students learn between 8th grade and sophomore year.)  Undaunted, my wife responded by pointing out that he might be on a budget.  If he has a fixed amount to spend and a lot of party guests, hes going to want to get the best bang for his buck.  Our heros reply?  Ill never be on a budget.

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Setting aside the obvious class implications for a moment (and my fantasy involving his ultimate issues with budgeting ten years hence in a soulless middle-management position), lets realize what this implies about the broader society.  People are willing to pay this math tax all the time.  We know they are, because impulse-purchasing and crafty marketing techniques work on us constantly.    Not to mention the grocery shrink ray.  We routinely make sub-optimal financial decisions, only rarely aware of doing so and even more rarely actually accepting the higher cost for a positive intangible reason (oh lets splurge on Pumpkin Spice Lattes!).

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My impression of the average Americans relationship to math in this context is that they simply dont learn this stuff, believing they dont have to.  They gladly pay the math tax because math is hard.  Until they cant ignore it anymore (i.e. bankruptcy, foreclosure). When crisis strikes, they finally learn it all over again and pat themselves on the back when they learn to pay down credit-card debt and spend less than they earn.  I imagine math teachers grinding their teeth to see middle-aged adults acting smug and self-congratulatory simply for mastering and applying a  subject they were taught in middle school.

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Perhaps most depressing of all: this entire discussion isnt really about math.  Its about the mechanical toolsets known as arithmetic and algebraic symbolic manipulation.  Calling that math is like calling paintbrush technique art.